August 21, 2022 | Foreign Policy

Kremlin Claims Monkeypox Could Be a Secret U.S. Bioweapon

Washington needs to stop being a pushover in the global info war.
August 21, 2022 | Foreign Policy

Kremlin Claims Monkeypox Could Be a Secret U.S. Bioweapon

Washington needs to stop being a pushover in the global info war.

There’s a lot we don’t know about how monkeypox, which had been prevalent in parts of Africa but only started infecting people in the United States and Europe this spring, is spreading. Yet the Russian defense ministry and Kremlin-controlled media outlets have been busy suggesting to audiences around the globe that the outbreak was engineered by U.S. military biological laboratories. Russian Duma Deputy Chair Irina Yarovaya echoed the Kremlin’s latest conspiracy theory earlier this month when she called on the World Health Organization (WHO) to lead an investigation into “the secrets of the U.S. military biolaboratories.”

Russia’s monkeypox narrative is a textbook Kremlin information operation, a reprise of the Russian campaign to link COVID-19 to U.S. biolab activities. It’s long past time for the United States to respond to the Kremlin’s information warfare and debunk these theories. Washington should apply the lessons it learned in the lead-up to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, when the Biden administration successfully leveraged its intelligence advantage to neutralize Russian disinformation and expose the Kremlin’s war plans for all the world to see.

The Kremlin’s seasoned information warriors run a sophisticated operation, weaving together unrelated events to establish misleading narratives. Take monkeypox: At last year’s Munich Security Conference, a panel of experts—including government officials from the United States and China—discussed a hypothetical monkeypox outbreak to understand how to reduce high-consequence biological threats. The panel’s hypothetical outbreak, which projected 271 million fatalities, was set for May 2022. The actual outbreak, it turns out, began in May as well.

The Kremlin has been spinning this coincidence to build an elaborate monkeypox disinformation campaign. The head of the Russian defense ministry’s radiation, chemical, and biological defense troops, Igor Kirillov, implied that monkeypox could have originated in a U.S.-funded Nigerian biolab. Russian media also reported that, according to Kirillov, “Ukraine’s biological laboratories were connected to the Pentagon’s infection system”—whatever that means. Russian media have claimed that a “hasty withdrawal” of U.S. personnel from Ukrainian labs could have led to workers contracting the disease. There is no causal evidence for any of this, but the combination of these bits and pieces on a timeline, then widely disseminated by various media, has the effect of burying the truth under a heap of disinformation.

Russia’s monkeypox narrative, just like its COVID-19 conspiracy theory, builds on a long history of Russian disinformation about U.S. bioweapons. During the Cold War, the KGB launched Operation Denver, a global disinformation campaign that blamed the U.S. government for synthesizing HIV, which causes AIDS. In particular, the KGB successfully spread the narrative that the CIA was using AIDS to target and kill Black Americans and Africans. This campaign successfully spread via the global media, especially in places like Pakistan, India, Africa, and even some left-wing Western publications. While efforts to spread AIDS disinformation were initially KGB- and Soviet media-led, pro-Soviet foreign journalists helped proliferate disinformation into wider circles. Another KGB disinformation campaign successfully spread the narrative that the United States, in cahoots with South Africa and Israel, had developed “ethnic weapons” engineered to kill only Arabs and Africans.

Washington’s disinclination to take the information fight to its adversaries has allowed Moscow and Beijing to spread their outrageous claims about the provenance of lethal diseases.

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Issues:

Disinformation Russia Ukraine